Reviewed by Joe Huber
LÄNDER TOPPEN! (Drei Hasen in der Abendsonne, 2 to 6 players, ages 8 and up, 30-45 minutes; 14.90€)
One of the pleasures of my lone trip to Essen, back in 2013, was seeing the array of publishers present. Not just the big publishers, but the one person shows, and the family publishers. One that stood out for me was Drei Hasen in der Abendsonne – in no small part because while my German is limited, I remember enough of it to understand that the English translation would be Three Hares in the Evening Sun. Then I heard about the story of the publisher. The founders were the same folks who had previously created Drei Magier Spiele, sold it off, founded Drei Hasen in der Abendsonne as a book publisher, and then returned to games once their non-compete clause was through.
But while I liked the story, and paid attention to the publisher as a result, until this year none of their games had been a hit for me. Still, I was very curious about one of their first games announced for release at Essen, Gauner raus! I don’t love all deduction games, but one that offered the promise of no private note taking sounded different and interesting enough to take a chance on. And, in practice, it has been – if looking for a lighter deduction game – though still with room for real deduction – it’s a fine choice. But of course, this is a review of a different game…
Not long before Essen, an additional game was announced – Länder toppen!.
Länder toppen!, designed by Matthias Jünemann, intrigued me because it sounded like a combination of a trick taking game with a trivia game – not something I greatly expected to love, but such an unusual combination that I wanted to try it. So, with a lot of help, I managed to get a copy.
And – it’s not really a trivia game; all of the data is printed right on the cards. Instead, it’s a trick taking game where you are playing multiple tricks simultaneously – each based upon different criteria. Each card represents a country (or a country-like body of land) with six different pieces of information: area, highest point, average temperature, population, life expectancy, and per capita gross national product. Each round, twelve tricks are played – for the highest/largest in each category, and for the lowest/least in each category. Players must place each of their 7-10 cards (depending upon the number of players) in a different category.
Once everyone has placed all of their cards, the winner of each category is determined. The player who played the “best” (or “worst) card in the category wins all of the cards played. Cards are then distributed between a face-up and a face-down pile. Face-down cards are worth a point apiece. Face-up cards are worth a point a piece IF they score at the end of the game. However, face-up cards only score if a player has the most face-up cards for that continent. And if a player received two or more cards, at least one must be face-up and at least one must be face-down. In addition, there are eight joker cards. If an are used, they are automatically taken by the player(s) who played them before the winner of the trick is determined – but which must be played face-up to one of the continents listed. After either three to six rounds, depending upon the number of players, the game is over and scores are totaled; the player with the most points wins – with ties going to the player with Antarctica.
I enjoy traditional card games and really enjoy trick taking games – many trick taking games are among my very favorites. As a result, I was well inclined to Länder toppen!, if cautiously. After playing for the first time, I was enjoying it, though part of me wished the data wasn’t immediately visible on each card, putting more of a trivia element into the game. The biggest issue with the game is the same one that affects more traditional card games as well: it’s really difficult to overcome a bad hand. Particularly when playing with more players (the game can be played with two to six players, and I’ve enjoyed it equally with as few as three and as many as six), there will often be one player for whom luck does not balance out. I’m not convinced it’s any worse a problem with Länder toppen! than in other trick taking games, but it’s certainly something to be aware of. Of course, there’s another possible source of bad luck in the game. If you have a Russia or a Nepal, you know what category they can win. But if you have a Canada or Chile instead…will they be good enough?
The game does reward paying attention to what has been played, which won’t appeal to everyone. I suppose this should be referred to as country-counting, rather than card-counting. All of this adds an element of luck to the game but not an intolerable one, for most I’ve played the game with. The reward is the opportunity to evaluate a hand across twelve different criteria and, sometimes, not optimize for the hand but instead for the odds. It’s possible to draw an ideal hand, each with a high or low value in a different category but, in practice, it’s sufficiently unlikely as to not be a concern. Some people have had issue with some of the data but the rules do provide references and, given that it is open, it’s really more a matter of being surprised than any issue with the play of the game. The cards are nicely produced and the boards players use to show which category they are placing each card in are simple but effective, with five different languages provided. Americans do have to be aware of the European representation of numbers but reminding everyone that periods are commas and commas are periods before play starts has been sufficient in my experience even with those previously unfamiliar.
Länder toppen! is not an expensive game; a quick check online found it for less than 15 Euro from a German online store. And while only German rules are in the box, official translations in English, French, Italian, and Dutch are available online. The rules are well presented and straight-forward and, while we missed one fine point, it was present in the rules.
In many ways, it’s easy to make a recommendation for Länder toppen! If you enjoy traditional trick-taking games, it provides some interesting variation and is worth giving a shot. If you don’t, this isn’t going to be the game to convince you of their interest unless, perhaps, the information about the various countries really appeals. What most struck me about the game was just how much it grew on me over time. While I enjoyed my initial plays, each subsequent play was a little more enjoyable. Now after seven plays, I count the game among my favorites. But at the same time, I think more can be done with the concept. I’d still like to see an edition of the game where the data is hidden and only revealed which determining who won the trick. I’d like to see more simultaneous trick taking games both with simultaneous play, as here, and with more traditional round-the-table play. But in the meanwhile, I’ll have a lot of fun with Länder toppen! – – – – – – – – – Joe Huber
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